Billy Blundermacher’s Great Corn Cob Fiasco


From Gene Logsdon

Billy Blundermacher was maybe not the smartest farmer in Winsome County  but contrary to what politicians, prophets, preachers and pedagogues were saying,  he  knew that 1 plus 1 always equaled 2.  Often he wished fervently it were not so,  that numbers existed only in the fantasy realm of the Federal Reserve, not the real world. Then, on occasion 1 plus 1 might equal 22 or 222, or as government farm subsidy programs intimated,  possibly 2,222,222. But no matter how he pecked away at his calculator, it always turned out that 1 plus 1 equaled 2. In the fall of 2009, it looked like 1 plus 1 was going to equal a minus 2 and that’s why he was so worried.

He sat disconsolately in his pickup staring out the windshield at one of the finest corn crops he had ever grown, a thousand acres that were going to yield 180 bushels to the acre  for sure, or if he were really unlucky, as much as 222 bushels per acre. The reason that might be unlucky was that in the world where 1 plus 1 equaled 2,  there was a chance that because of the exorbitant cost of production, he might lose anywhere from 2 cents to 22 cents on every bushel of corn he harvested. As his hired man remarked, pulling on his jaw, “damned good thing you didn’t plant 2000 acres, ain’t it?”

The crux of his problem was the weather. The summer had been cool and the fall rainy, so the corn had ripened only slowly. The moisture content in the grain was still above 25%.  To keep corn from molding in storage, it needed to dry down to at least 15% moisture. If he harvested the crop now, it meant drying the grain artificially with propane. All the figures he had in front of him indicated that it would cost him something like thirty cents a bushel. To dry a thousand acres of 180 bushel corn at that moisture content meant spending a cool $54,000. He did the numbers for the fifth time, unable to believe that, yes, once more, 1 plus 1 still equaled 2.

If it weren’t for the drying cost, he might have squeaked out a bit of a profit on his excellent corn crop even while  paying $200 an acre for rented land, $300 a bag for seed corn, over $100 an acre for fertilizer and herbicides (he was afraid to put the calculator to that actual number yet), not to mention the cost of keeping half a million dollars worth of farm machinery up and running plus a semi-truck to haul the grain to the elevator. If he dried the corn himself, the cost might be a little less, but that meant investing in bins, dryer, fans, augurs etc. etc. right out the old bank window.

That is why he had not taken off any corn yet. Perhaps the weather would turn warm and fair and the corn would dry down to at least 18% moisture on the stalk and save him a truckload of money. But wishing for warm, sunny weather in November in Winsome County was another version of believing that 1 plus 1 equaled something more than 2, so he knew he was going to have to start the harvest.  It just might blow up a blizzard soon or a flood, or a windstorm and then, instead of losing only a few dollars an acre, he might lose the whole shebang.

That’s when, staring out the windshield, he had the greatest idea of his lifetime so far.  He was thinking about how the ethanol gang, having gone nearly broke accepting subsidies from the government to make fuel out of corn, was talking big about using the stalks and cobs instead. That reminded him of the old days before farmers went crazy when his father harvested ear corn and put it in slatted cribs to dry naturally at no fuel cost at all. Why not, he mused, go back to ear corn harvesters and save $50,000 in drying costs. There were plenty of those old harvesters still around. He could make cheap cribs out of wood poles with fence wire walls to allow for good air circulation, and a cheap metal roof. He could build a lot of that kind of storage  for $50,000 and it would last his life time anyway. Then he could feed the corn to livestock or shell it and sell when the price went up, and, oh wow, still have the cobs to sell to the ethanol dreamers. For every bushel of corn there were about 12 pounds of cobs. At 180 bushels per acre, that amounted to about a thousand tons of cobs. If the government continued its fairyland thinking, it might pay the ethanol boys  a subsidy to buy cobs, maybe $22.22 a ton which would mean that he had about $22,222 in cobs in the crib. Oh boy. Prosperity was just around the corner.

And so it came to pass that Winsome County became the home of the biggest corn crib in the world. Four feet wide, 20 feet high, and stretching clear across Billy’s thousand acres and back again. However, it still stood there full of corn the next spring because the corn price had not gone up,  the hog market was still in limbo if not hell, and  beef prices had slumped as the government shelled out yet another $350 million dollars to dairy farmers to send their cows to slaughter and flood the market with meat. In fairyland, that was supposed to raise the price of milk. Also it came to pass that making gas out of corn cobs was not such a hot idea after all. Not even subsidized ethanol was safe from the inexorable law of 1 plus 1 equals 2. As Grandpaw Blundermacher said, “Cobs are  great for starting stove fires, but not cars.”

But Billy was not much dismayed. He’d had another brain storm and he was busy on his calculator.  He had remembered how his grandmother made jelly out of corn cobs and how good it had tasted. As close as he could figure so far, even if he lost money shelling and selling all that corn, he had enough cobs to make some $2,222,222 worth of jelly.
~~

13 Comments

Friends like to say that is is supremely fitting that I should someday write a book about bull. Gene

Teresa Sue Hoke-House November 11, 2009 at 6:09 am

Thanks for my morning chuckle, Gene. Looking forward to your Manure book, *grin*.

When I was in New Zealand,vension was popular and there were deer ranches all over the place-(really high fences too) yup-I think I would start a deer meat production company to get rid off all that troublesome corn. But there is probably a law against it… anyway-I enjoyed reading the story about Billys’corn crop.

I’ve chosen you for the Honest Scrap Award. If you want to participate you can check out my post today or if you aren’t into memes, feel free to ignore it.

-Nathan

Dusty, progress on small home built threshers is ongoing. Best to Google the subject for the latest. You don’t need to send pic of Clipper. I just photoed one and will probably use it in the near future on a blog. Gene

Gene, just finished reading “Small-Scale Grain Raising” and found it to be a good resource. I’m trying to find a small scale home built thresher and wanted to see if you had any suggestions, as so far I have’nt found anything suitable. Also wanted to sent you a few pictures of my neibour using my old “Clipper No.1-B Seed cleaner to fan dry beans, but don’t know where to send them. Thanks

Russ, yes I’ve had a taste or two. It’s the old story. If you put enough sugar in anything, it makes a passable jelly. Actually there used to be a popular recipe for it in one of the old Farm Journal cookbooks. It’s okay but I’ll take cherry jam every time.

Great ending to a good read. At first I thought maybe Billy (or you) had turned some of that extra corn into that ol’ demon alcohol. But I googled corn cob jelly and found that either you were both sober or there is a complex conspiracy to perpetuate the myth. Have you ever had any? A favotite recipe might be in order. I should have some cobs for sale in case Billy can’t meet the demand.

DennisP The books I referred to were written roughly between 1890 and 1920. They were used as textbooks back when educators were actually trying to teach somthing worthwhile and have titles that pertain to soils and soil fertility, chemistry in agriculture, methods of soil fertility— that sort of thing. They have two or three chapters specificly on manure management. The one I found most helpful so far is “Crops and Methods of Soil Improvement” by Alva Agee (1912). If you will pardon a bit of a commercial, I will have a book out about manure next year in which I glean the most appropriate stuff from these books and save you a lot of time searching and researching for them. Gene

    Hmmmm…Which is it, Gene? Trying to save me from spending money foolishly? Or trying to make some money for yourself [you know I’ll be first in line (with a little jostling and elbowing) for your new book :-)]. But thanks for the one title – I’ll get it anyway.

Gene, you may have inadvertently invented a new cost-free fencing technology. In fact, this could be a whole new form of crop rotation – one year of corn, turned into a 20ft high corncob fence around the entire plot, followed by sheep or cows that take 4 years to eat the fence, market the animals before they escape, and back to corn again!

Ain’t numbers wonderful? Punch in the right numbers (don’t even have to use paper and pencils anymore) and you can always get an uplifting result. Now I wonder if you could rewrite this essay from the standpoint of an Amish farmer looking at the same crop. I wonder what decisions he would make?

By the way, Gene, in an earlier essay you wrote “I have been reading old farming books written before artificial fertilizers became easily available. I am amazed at the sophistication with which science approached the subject of soil fertility once it become evident in the mid-1800s that farmers were rapidly depleting the native richness of their soils…” What would be the names of some of these books? What ones would you particularly recomment? I’m not at all familiar with the literature but would like to read some of them. Thanks.

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